Nellie Gray, the founder of the March for Life, died this week at age 88. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision and, a year later, of the March, which rallies activists from across the country in Washington, D.C., in defense of vulnerable unborn human life, fellow pro-life activists and grateful Americans pay her tribute and assess the state of this human-rights campaign.
When a small group of concerned citizens gathered in Nellie Gray’s dining room in 1973 to discuss the problem of abortion, no one imagined the conversation would mark the start of the most significant pro-life event in the United States, the March for Life. Of that meeting, Nellie remarked, “We were just a small group figuring out how to respond; I just had the convenient place to meet!”
From the first moment, Nellie fought with all her strength to abolish legalized abortion, which she believed to be a direct attack on the most defenseless of Americans. When laws related to abortion did not change in Washington, Nellie neither gave up nor grew tired but instead inspired countless others to join in the peaceful protest of this profound human-rights violation. During her almost 40-year leadership of the March for Life, attendance grew from 20,000 participants in 1974 to over 250,000 participants in recent years, with tens of thousands more marching in spirit at home.
Many, if not most, attendees at the annual March for Life are young people. Interestingly, while this energetic demographic of Americans has always lived in a post-Roe era, they are overwhelmingly pro-life, according to pollsters.
Nellie’s credo of “No exceptions! No compromises!” sometimes brought criticism, yet most will agree that at least in part because of Nellie’s passionate and relentless protection of life, Roe v. Wade is not settled law. No politician can run for office in the United States without a stance on the legality of abortion.
In life, Nellie Gray inspired the most well-attended, peaceful annual protest on the human-rights issue of our day: abortion. In her memory, we will continue to march until her dream of a world free of abortion is realized.
— Tim Saccoccia is on the board of the March for Life.
CHARLES A. DONOVAN
Nellie Gray and the March for Life are near-synonyms. No doubt, when this redoubtable woman launched this event on the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade, she little expected that its annual renewal would span the second half of her long and exemplary life.
Few right-to-life activists of that era did. We believed that the Supreme Court ruling of 1973 was so antithetical to our nation’s animating principle — the right to life is endowed by our Creator — that this judicial ukase could not long withstand determined popular resistance. We also believed, and history has affirmed to a greater degree than we typically discuss, that Roe and its progeny would unleash eddies of violence that would ripple across social relationships in unpredictable ways.
The March for Life was — and is now — a visible symbol of two propositions. First, that affirming life is not a temporary but a permanent task entrusted to every generation. And second, that peaceful and principled witness is vital if the practice of abortion is not to be incorporated into our way of life as just another tolerable and immovable evil.
Nellie Gray’s persistence and fearlessness were legendary. She was tough-minded in public and even more so in private. Anyone who was in the room when she persuaded President Reagan to make an appearance on the White House balcony to wave to her marchers across the Ellipse knows just how tough she could be. Reagan’s aides worried about his safety in so public a space; Nellie understood the importance of symbols, even in an atmosphere of threats.
The March for Life will go on, for the simple reason that it is a movement of youth. Roe is approaching 40, but the pro-life cause is, as it should be, young. That is the symbol and substance that sustain our hope.
— Charles A. Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.